You are Ingmar Bergman, one of the most famous motion picture directors in the history of the medium, and you have just completed Fanny and Alexander, a monumental declaration of your intention to be done with the art form, having said all you will ever say with it. And critics have agreed, anointing the film on the spot as an all-time masterpiece But you're not dead, and you're not the sort to give up playing around with the dramatic arts. So where do you go from there?

If you're the actual Ingmar Bergman, you go about as far from the definitive statement of Fanny and Alexander as it is possible to go, to a little throwaway project made with very nice intentions that doesn't even really rise up to the status of a cool-down exercise. Indeed, Bergman's personal investment in the 1983 television film The School for Wives goes so deep that he didn't even get the director credit for himself, instead leaving that honor for Alf Sjöberg, who had died two and a half years prior to the film's broadcast on Christmas Day. For the whole project is basically a tribute to Sjöberg, Bergman's colleague and former mentor. Like Bergman, Sjöberg considered himself a theater director first and foremost, having retired from filmmaking in the late 1960s; the last ten years of his life were dedicated to the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where he staged some of the best-regarded productions of a prolific and extremely important career.

The last of these productions, not by intent, was a production of Molière's 1662 play L'école des femmes, which was still in rehearsals on 17 April 1980, when the 76-year-old Sjöberg was killed in a car accident on the way to the theater. As a way of honoring the legendary director, the cast decided to go on with the mostly-completed production, which was greeted with considerable acclaim for its use of dark humor to sharpen the piece's satiric heart. As a way of further honoring Sjöberg, Bergman took it upon himself to film the production for national television: the same cast, the same sets. Probably not all of the same blocking, since there are moments where characters address themselves to the camera in a way that would surely not have worked on stage. But  the point is the same: this is Sjöberg's vision, Bergman is just helping to curate it a little bit with some characteristically close shot scales.

It's a little bit of a pity that this is the closest we ever got to Bergman, a passionate lover of Molière, giving us a filmed version of that playwright's work (Bergman directed a production of The Misanthrope in Copenhagen in1973 that was recorded and broadcast on Danish television, but he did not direct the recording, and the results are cinematically unengaging canned theater of the drabbest sort). But it does, at least, suggest that Sjöberg had some pretty fantastic ideas about how to handle a more than 300-year-old play to knock all of the fusty respectability off it, and create something that's actually fun to watch. I am no Molière expert, and I know nothing about the history of how people have interpreted The School of Wives, so for all I know this is the most pathetically straightforward production a 20th Century theater director would ever have come up with, but I do know that plays of this vintage tend to be more funny at a theoretical level than in practice. And while nobody would accuse this version of being the laff riot of 1983, it has a comic energy that lands well enough to be a pretty gleeful watch, in part because of how unapologetically nasty it is.

The play focuses its attention on Arnolphe (Allan Edwall, such a commanding presence as the ghost in Fanny and Alexander, and apparently the prime mover of this project after Sjöberg's death), a disgusting lecher in his 50s, who has spent the last several years raising his ward Agnès (Lena Nyman) to be so guileless and ignorant that she'll have no idea what a miserable partner he'd be after he forces her to marry him. She's old enough to leave the convent now, and Arnolphe's grotesque plan would seem to be nearing its fruition, except that his very handsome young family friend Horace (Stellan Skarsgård) happens to have met Agnès in the meantime; they young folks have fallen in love, and only the fact that Arnolphe, in his fatuousness, has recently begun using a fancy assumed name keeps them both in the dark. So he immediately begins plotting how, with the help of his servants Alain (Björn Gustafson) and Georgette (Ulla Sjöblom), he can keep the young couple apart, thus thwarting his friend Chrysolde's (Lasse Pöysti) prediction that this is an unbelievably terrible plan and will end badly for him.

How much psychological complexity this lost on its journey from French to Swedish to English, I cannot say, but in its final form, this version of The School for Wives is a bit on the simple side: its main purpose seems to be to demonstrate, constantly, what a revolting toad Arnolphe is, and to celebrate every setback he and his lackeys experience. Everyone in the cast is fine, and it's fun to see Skarsgård as a young, dashing romantic lead, so statuesque and tall next to the hunched-over Edwall; honestly some of the biggest genuine laughs in the staging come directly from the visual contrast between these two actors, accentuated by the costumes designed by Anne-Marie Anttila, Tom Lannge, and Göran Wassberg, in addition to the physicality of performances that draw attention to Skarsgård's lanky poses and Edwall's cowed form. And Gustafson and Sjöblom are having a ball playing one-note caricatures of amoral idiots.

But Edwall is the focus of everything; Bergman's camera gives every actor a nice share of close angles so we can see the details of their performance, but Edwall is certainly the individual actor who goes the farthest with this, embracing the camera's presence to turn his face into a rubbery mask of comic reactions, from the cartoon-like way he waggles his tongue in lascivious anticipation, to the way his entire face sags in an aghast frown every time he realises that he is less appealing on every aesthetic, personal, and moral level than Horace, to the way he crinkles it up in petulant anger. It's a broad, almost caricatured performance of selfish, horny egotism as a series of reptilian physical gestures, and while it probably runs a bit more towards outright mockery than Molière's satire, it gets the same point across about the childish entitlement of old rich men.

Besides, playing things broadly gives The School for Wives a sense of silliness that is far preferable to the stilted old-fashioned air that too easily attaches to contemporary interpretations of centuries-old comedies. It gives the play some bit and lots of energy, making it something worth watching because it's fun on its own terms, and not just because it is the work of A Historically Important Artist.